Virginia in the Rear View Mirror

My wife Pamela and I were talking yesterday about the old proposition, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” Attributed by various Internet sources of variable reliability to Buddha, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and theologian Lynn H. Hough, the proposition suggests that how you travel–the quality of the spirit you bring into each day’s movements–is more important than any point toward which you happen to be moving.

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“Unless you’re moving toward a chocolate chip muffin,” Honey thought.

By that criterion, I am a lousy traveler. Because I’ve had a destination in the state of Florida in mind for three months now.

And the two months we just spent in the state of Virginia, waiting for our misaligned stars to set themselves straight and point the way south, now have my teeth set firmly on edge.

Messrs. Buddha, Emerson, and Hough would no doubt think I had a spiritual problem. And I do believe they’d be right.

Entering Virginia

On November 30, 2015, Pamela, Honey the Golden Retriever and I were motoring down the Chesapeake Bay, crossing the mouth of the Potomac River into Virginia from the neighboring state of Maryland, when we heard the first sound from Meander that would interrupt the progress we were making toward the Florida Keys.

That sound caused us to alter our short-term plans. Instead of proceeding directly toward Norfolk and Mile Marker Zero at the beginning of that fabled part of the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) known as the Ditch, we made what we hoped would be a short detour to the small but important boating community of Deltaville to fix whatever trouble we had picked up in the Potomac.

There, we found that what we had heard was the unfortunate sound of our cutless bearing being drawn up into our stern tube. We also found that our feathering propeller was badly in need of being sent across the country for reconditioning by its manufacturer’s U.S. affiliate; and that our propeller shaft was scorched in two places, requiring a custom replacement to be machined. So as long as we were waiting for all that to happen, we decided to have Meander’s engine’s injectors inspected and reconditioned, and her engine mounts replaced.

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On the hard at the Deltaville Yachting Center.

All of this was a very good, necessary, and productive time. So much so, in fact, that I didn’t really mind the two-and-one-half weeks it took us to get underway again.

We got underway again on December 18, 2015; and one hour after leaving the dock, we hit a line in the water that would turn us back. Faithful readers of this blog will already have read about our December 18 in my post about The Longest Day.

Staying in Virginia

When we reached Deltaville again, we discovered that the line we picked up basically undid the cutless bearing work we just had done. (One brand new cutless bearing; one hour of service life; one premature and painful demise. RIP.)

But a few days before our yard hauled Meander out to discover that small problem, our marine technician had found a much larger one as we sat on the dock: the gears in our gearbox had been ground into a collection of small bronze shards on the longest day, probably toward its end when I ran us up onto a shoal and had to pound Meander’s engine to get off again before a gale predicted for later that day descended upon us.

With the relative inactivity of Christmas and the New Year upon us, this second work period in Deltaville felt like swimming in molasses as we went through ordering a new cutless bearing, locating and ordering a new gearbox, arranging to have the newly reconditioned propeller sent back from across the country for refitting (since we were waiting again, why not?), and clearing up the various misunderstandings it turned out our various vendors had been holding about our various holiday shipping and staffing schedules. And by the time the work period had dripped to its end, another three weeks had slid passed.

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At least the view was pretty.

Getting a little impatient, we decided to leave as soon as the work was done, foregoing the sea trial that would have told our marine technician that the pitch on our newly reinstalled prop needed a final adjustment.

Moving through Virginia

We departed Deltaville again on January 7, 2016. And long before we reached Hampton, VA that evening, we knew from our engine’s inability to get to within seventy percent of its maximum specified engine speed that we were badly “overpropped.” After a confirming phone call back to our marine technician, we decided with great precision of intent that we would do this “not necessarily right away,” but “sooner” rather than “later.”

After the relative remoteness of Deltaville, Hampton was pleasantly urban. We stayed through an extended weekend during which we ate at restaurants, drank beer at bars, and bought Astronaut Ice Cream (freeze-dried!) at the museum store of the Virginia Air and Space Center, a large, contemporary structure on the Hampton waterfront designed to educate and entertain visitors who would otherwise get underfoot at the nearby NASA Langley Research Center.

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The Virginia Air and Space Center.

Five days later, on January 12, we took Meander across Hampton Roads (this is the name of a waterway, dear reader, not a series of highways as seemingly implied by a TV ad we saw for a local car dealership) and finally reached Mile Marker Zero.

Motoring down the Elizabeth River to the ICW’s Virginia Cut, we came to rest that evening in Chesapeake, VA on the dock of a well-respected boatyard in the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal.

Overstaying in Virginia

And we decided there to take the bull by the horns and get our prop’s pitch adjusted, a nice simple task that also ended up taking twice as long as we expected.

What we expected was a short haul and a three-hour job. But our expectations changed when, as Meander was being hauled out, it occurred to me to discuss with the yard’s mechanic a topic of some subtlety that our Deltaville marine technician had advised me to monitor quite closely.

“Before we start,” I suggested, “we should talk about the type of grease we’ll need to relube the prop.”

“The Teflon grease?” replied the mechanic.

Ah, there’s the rub.

Our Deltaville marine tech had warned us that many yards would expect to use Teflon grease in our feathering prop, unaware that the manufacturer’s instructions explicitly warn against it. The working pressures to which the prop’s gears and grooves are subject are high enough to wash Teflon grease out in a few weeks. And white lithium, another type of grease commonly kept in boatyards, was also apparently not up to this particular job. What we wanted, our marine tech and the manufacturer’s instructions noted, was Lubriplate 130-AA, a brand-name calcium grease rated for extreme pressure applications.

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With this many parts, the right grease is important.

So we lost another day, first to educate ourselves and the boatyard staff about the differences between these types of grease, and then to have the staff confirm our findings in a phone call to the manufacturer’s U.S. affiliate, and then to ensure the right stuff was ordered, received and applied.

No sweat, I said. Well worth the investment in preserving the longevity of our $1,000 prop reconditioning job, I said. Pam, by this time noticing a certain stridency starting to creep into my increasingly forced declarations of optimism, sought to fend that tone off by heartily encouraging my brave attempts to sustain that optimism.

And so we were ready. Expecting to leave Chesapeake, VA behind, we cast off from the boatyard dock at 8:05 AM on Saturday, January 16, we once again resumed our trip south.

And once again, we were turned back—this time, by a clutch cable that decided to snap underway.

OH, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD.

Returning to our boatyard, we landed again at 9:30 AM to wait out another long weekend. On Monday, we located our mechanic, had him remove four seized bolts from the top of our steering pedestal so we could get to the broken cable and related parts (six hours of labor, not one of which was wasted), and got the parts identified and ordered.

The parts didn’t ship until Wednesday, and didn’t arrive until mid-afternoon Friday. And I didn’t get done installing them until Sunday afternoon, leaving just enough time in the day for a quick sea trial to make sure this time that everything was, in fact, in order.

Another week gone, along with the last of my patience.

Learning from Virginia

This past Monday, January 25, 2016, we left Chesapeake, VA again, motoring out of the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal into the North Landing River. And at Green Daymark No. 63, we slipped, finally, into North Carolina, leaving Virginia in the rear view mirror.

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The distance we traveled through the state, from the Potomac River to that daymark, is about 150 miles. And it took us eight weeks to cover it.

That’s just too long a time.

I should point out here that I have nothing against the state of Virginia. Indeed, I love Virginia. It is my father’s birthplace and, for that reason among others, the sacred ground of some of the best family vacations I ever experienced as a kid. It has mountains to the west, the Bay to the east, and mighty rivers running down from one to the other. It has natural beauty on every summit and in every valley, along every river bank and around each bend of every waterway. It has history. It has culture. And it has good, kind, caring people who have carved out distinctive and noteworthy lives amongst these treasures, and who have made our time in their lovely state the best that our circumstances would permit.

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Norfolk welcomes you.

No, the state of Virginia is not the enemy.

Rather, the enemy is my state of mind. One that has become consumed in this last week by resenting the delays, worrying about the costs, and despairing of ever getting us to the warmth we sought when we started seeking the ICW back in November.

Tonight, I’m writing from a marina on North Carolina’s Alligator River, about four miles south of the Albemarle Sound. That puts us at Statute Mile 84 on a waterway that stretches more than another 900 miles to the Florida Keys.

And that brings me back to the conversation Pamela and I had yesterday. I am not one who has, in the past, readily embraced the idea that the journey is more important than the destination. Rather, I have more often held that a good destination provides the goal of, and, therefore, the meaning for any journey worth taking.

A journey without a destination is just. . . well, a meandering.

(I never liked that name.)

On the other hand, I have learned more recently to appreciate that it costs too much to sacrifice the quality and the spirit of one’s being today to the anxiety of striving for some far-off destination to be gained, if ever, in some distant and ill-defined tomorrow. Rather, the proper attitude, I suspect, is to value and cherish both—the moment I presently occupy on my journey, and the destination that makes my journey worth taking.

And the point of the original saying is to remember that only the first of these is accessible to me here and now.

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Honey, there and then on the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal.

With that in mind, I simply have to allow the fact that the delays that have befallen us were in the here-and-now, and the places those delays allowed us to explore in greater depth were also in the here-and-now, and the people who inhabited them were, finally, also in the here-and-now. I would not have found any of them anywhere else.

And whatever else should befall us in the days ahead, I had better learn today to cast off resentment, worry, and despair, and to relax more in the here-and-now.

Because our destination is more than 900 miles in front of us. And if I don’t relax, there won’t be anything left of me to inhabit it when we arrive.

The Ditch At Last

When I started cruising with my wife Pamela and Honey the Golden Retriever five months ago, I was kinda hoping it would change my temperament. I tend to run pessimistic at the best of times; and when times are not at their best, as they haven’t been for the past two months, I can get downright unpleasant.

Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me grouchy.

In retrospect, I guess it was unrealistic of me to expect cruising to deliver the kind of overall personality transplant that, say, only a frontal lobotomy could really make happen. But the lifestyle has taught me that I should at least try to make an effort to celebrate the happier moments it throws our way. The unions. The reunions. The gifts. (From a guest appearance by David Cassidy on the sitcom Malcolm in the Middle: “The here-and-now is a special gift. That’s why I call it the present.”) The departures. The arrivals.

Especially the arrivals.

So we passed this at 10:15 AM on Tuesday, January 12, one week ago today.

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Floating in Virginia’s Elizabeth River between Norfolk and Portsmouth, No. 36 is not much to look at. But it marks the charted start of that portion of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (the AISW) known as the Ditch, a thousand-mile-long path of natural waterways, dredged channels and engineered canals that ends, for some skilled, determined, and lucky cruisers, in Key West, Florida.

Reading their own actuarial tables with respect to hurricane season, our boat insurer wants us north of Norfolk each year between May 1 and November 1. So our two months of setbacks and delays may already have put Key West out of our reach this year.

No matter; the other end of the AICW isn’t going anywhere soon. It will be there for us, whenever we arrive.

Meanwhile, after the past two months, it’s good just to have gotten started.

Oh, For Crying Out Loud: Another Failure Underway

“And the train, it kept on going though it could slow down.” So concluded singer and rock flutist extraordinaire Ian Anderson at the end of Jethro Tull’s classic hit, Locomotive Breath, as he considered the fate of the All-Time Loser being run headlong to his death by said train.

When our binnacle’s shift lever failed us this morning as we came down on a low bridge in the ICW’s Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal, that song flashed, instantly and in its entirety, through the soundscape of my mind.

A game of bridge

Pamela, Honey the Golden Retriever and I had just spent a few days in the boatyard of the Atlantic Yacht Basin in Chesapeake, Virginia, where we had the pitch of Meander’s feathering propeller adjusted. Trying to resume our progress southbound down the Ditch, we were off the dock and approaching the Centerville Turnpike Bridge a mere three miles away. The bridge is one of many relatively low spans on the ICW that sailboats like Meander must have opened to allow their passage. So we contacted its bridge keeper on VHF Channel 13, and he instructed us to come right up to the bridge before he would open it. This instruction is intended to minimize the amount of time bridge keepers must disrupt vehicle traffic over the spans to allow vessels to pass under them.

Small recreational boats, that is. Bridge keepers seem to show a little more alacrity with the thousands of 1,500-ton-capacity barges being pushed around by tugboats on the ICW, often opening their spans long before these vessels would be required to reduce speed to avoid a collision. And, given the potential of any one of these to take an entire bridge down, quite appropriately, too. A sailboat as small as Meander, however, could lose its mast in a collision that would mean no more for a bridge than some scraped paint; so with us, the bridge keepers are somewhat more willing to take their chances.

Of course, we’re not willing to take ours. So as we began to draw in close, I throttled down. Then I tried to shift into neutral, intending to coast to a near stop.

Immediately, we heard a small metallic tink, as of a metal pin parting; and suddenly, the shift lever was drooping uselessly from its pivot on the binnacle.

When you’re headed directly toward a bridge in forward gear and your transmission fails you, you know instantly that there is one thing, and one only, that must be done before all others.

You turn to your wife and say:

“Pam, please call the bridge keeper and let him know we won’t be needing that opening after all.”

After all, you don’t want to keep the poor guy waiting.

Oh, also, any steps you might take to avoid hitting the closed span in front of you should probably be fairly high on your list of things to get done sometime before the end of the day as well.

So you check around for other boat traffic, thank your lucky stars you’re not being followed by a 1,500-ton barge at that moment, make your about-face turn away from the bridge, and point yourself back toward where you came from.

Sometimes, keeping a minor crisis from becoming a major one is really that simple. (For helpful hints on how to escalate a minor crisis repeatedly into a major one, please check out this post on The Longest Day.)

Control freaks

The next step in crisis management was getting our runaway boat (runaway, Mike? at four knots? really?) back under our control. So Pam took the helm, I put Honey in the cabin below, and I opened up the top hatch of our engine compartment.

Fortunately, too many previous and unfortunate trips to this compartment have made me quite familiar with the layout of its contents. Within it, the engine sits fairly far forward. Aft of it sits the gearbox (newly replaced at a cost of about $4,500 in the aftermath to The Longest Day), and on the starboard side of the gearbox is a lever arm connected to a cable. The cable snakes forward, then up, then aft through the compartment and disappears through an opening in the cockpit floor to continue up into the binnacle above. The lever arm is the gearbox’s shift lever, and the cable is the visible portion of the linkage that connects the arm (or should have connected it and, until this morning, did) to the corresponding shift lever on the binnacle.

Aft of the gearbox, the propeller shaft was happily whirring away in forward gear and lowest throttle at about six revolutions per second.

Having guessed from the tink we heard that the break in the linkage was somewhere out of sight in the binnacle, I decided not to concern myself with locating it. The chance of finding it was slim, and the chance of fixing it while underway was, I believed, none.

Rather, I turned my attention to operating the gearbox’s shift lever directly. The fitting that connected it to the cable linkage was a small, oblong steel block with a narrow slot machined into it, looking like a badly proportioned tuning fork designed by someone who had no ear for music. The tuning fork’s two tines straddled the shift lever, and a pin passed through aligned holes in all three elements to complete a freely rotating connection.

It was onto to this block, rather than onto the small, exposed tip of the shift lever itself, that I decided to try to lock my vise-grip locking pliers. Its parallel sides gave the jaws of the pliers a greater bearing area than the rounded tip, and locking onto it would allow us to exploit the pin connection’s rotation instead of rotating our wrists as we pushed and pulled.

So, in the half-suspended, head-aft-of-heels position that has become my favorite for engine work, a position around which I fully intend to create a best-selling yoga program that will keep us financially afloat until I die, I put my pliers onto the block, squeezed them into the locked position, and pulled up on the shift lever.

The lever came up smoothly; and a moment later, the prop shaft wasn’t rotating anymore.

“We’ve got neutral, baby,” I called up in triumph from the engine compartment.

And Pam said, “What? I can’t hear you with your head in that engine compartment.”

So I came up for air, and we discussed strategy for our return to the Atlantic Yacht Basin dock.

Practice ‘til you’re perfect

Our standard operating procedure for docking Meander with our two-person crew puts one of us on the deck, managing the lines with which we will tie her off, and the other at the helm, managing the boat’s speed and direction as we pull alongside the dock. To manage that speed, the helmsperson must operate not just the throttle, but also the gearbox. The necessary tactics include alternating between forward and neutral to keep just enough speed to maintain way on the approach, going into neutral to decelerate on the final coast to the dock, and, finally, in order to bring the boat to a dead stop right alongside, giving it a quick burst of the throttle while in reverse.

In our latest semi-disabled situation, however, the helmsperson could not operate the gearbox directly. That would have to be done by the other crew member, head down in the engine compartment, eyes off the developing action outside. That meant that the helmsperson would have to be in sole charge of bringing Meander in. In turn, that meant that the other crew member—let’s call him the engineer, he would enjoy that—would have to execute the helmsperson’s oral commands.

Granted, that execution would involve no more than pulling back and forth on a lever, for crying out loud. Let’s not make more of that than it is.

But tactically, the helmsperson’s ability to manage Meander’s speed successfully would depend in large part on the speed, accuracy and predictability of the engineer’s execution of her orders, giving her a working emulation of the gearbox control she would otherwise have had right at her fingertips had the binnacle shift lever been working.

That is, the key would be communication.

And that communication would have to happen through the soundscape of a thudding engine.

So, long before we began our final approach to the Atlantic Yacht Basin dock, we practiced with Pam on the helm and me in the engine compartment. I put my head down and tried to hear her shouted orders over the throbbing in my ears. She tried to hear my shouted responses emerge from the din of the open compartment. And after a few minutes, we had worked out the specific bodily positions from which we could reliably send and receive in both directions those critical one-word commands and confirmations: forward, neutral, reverse.

Also, we called the boatyard’s dockmaster, advised him of our impending shorthanded landing attempt, and asked him to meet us on the dock with a boat hook with which he could pick up Meander’s bow line.

And, finally, I reached back into my five months of experience on the helm to advise Pam that reverse should be used to stop Meander at the dock, preferably after the dockmaster had gotten her bow line around a piling.

Then it was show time.

Star performance

Pam took charge of the helm, and I went head down into the engine compartment. Wishing that I had relinquished the steering to her in the past more often, I checked for places against which I might brace myself in anticipation of being knocked off balance by a hard bump off a dock piling.

Over the engine’s thrum, I heard Pam shout, “Forward.”

“Forward,” I shouted back.

Thirty seconds later, I heard her shout, “Neutral.”

“Neutral,” I shouted back.

Another thirty seconds, during which I wondered what the world looked like going by.

“Forward,” Pam ordered.

Forward.

“Neutral.”

Neutral.

“Forward just a moment.”

That was a new and somewhat ambiguous wrinkle, one that I, as the more experienced helmsperson, should have thought to anticipate and address in our tactical briefing. Speculatively, I put Meander into forward for one second, then popped it back into neutral. It was a little less than Pam had intended. Raising our eyes to each other, she and I quickly agreed she would give me a more specific duration on the next order.

“Forward one second,” she commanded.

“Forward,” I yelled back. “One-one thousand. Neutral.”

“Forward three seconds,” she commanded.

“Forward. One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand. Neutral.”

Ten seconds or so drifted by.

“Forward three seconds.”

Forward. Three-count. Neutral.

We continued to coast.

“Reverse.”

“Okay, this is it,” I thought. I shifted into reverse and braced for the bump of boat against dock.

A moment later, “Neutral.”

Huhmn. What happened to the bump?

Since it would have required abandoning my post at this critical moment to pick my head up, I just turned it skyward, leaving my hand on the locking pliers. Above, the edges of the bimini and the dodger were speeding past the clouds. This startled me.

“Holy crow!” I thought. “We must still be doing one and a half knots!” Yet there was no sound of a commotion or panic above, so I continued to hold my position.

Then it occurred to me: The bimini and the dodger were not speeding past the clouds. Rather, the clouds were speeding past the bimini and the dodger.

We were stopped.

A moment later, Pam confirmed it, calling out, “We’re done.” I came up, killed the engine, turned off the ignition key, and looked up.

We were lying alongside, floating about six inches off the pilings of the dock. It had been a perfect landing. And Pam had had it under control all the way in.

No joy in Chesapeake

So we’re back on the dock again in Chesapeake, Virginia, and I am again reminded that I will not be able in this finite lifetime to exhaust the infinite number of good things I have to say about my wife.

And I can also admit that I’m not entirely displeased with our growing record of successful attempts at self-rescue in emergent crises, in spite of my growing resentment at their seemingly endless repetition. All-Time Losers? Not us. Well, not Pam, anyway.

About Meander, however, most of what wants to be said cannot appear in a family blog without heavy redaction. For the third time in about two months, we are spending a long weekend stuck on the dock of a boatyard, waiting for a service department to open up the following Monday so we can get her figured out, fixed and flying again.

And that’s not entirely fair of me. This is a good boat, a solid boat, one that will someday cross oceans. Under the daysailing and weekending style of her previous owners, she was, perhaps, a little underused. Realizing that fact, they did the right thing by her, selling her to a couple who, with liveaboard plans, cruising aspirations and a bimini dream, intend to help the boat achieve her potential. And here we are now, running Meander harder than she has been run in many years, shaking out her cobwebs, tightening up her loose screws, getting her ready once again to face the entirety of the world she was designed to sail.

To add to the injustice, the second of these three weekends about which I complain came as a direct result of The (rather heavily promoted, don’t you think, Mike?) Longest Day; a day made long not by Meander’s failings, but rather those of her crew; a day on which, if anything, she proved her worth to that crew ten times over.

Right now, though, I don’t care. All I care about is the extraordinary amount of time we seem to be spending in boatyards.

And I’m sorry about that. Sorry to feel sorry for myself. Sorry to pit this resentment and all my other stupid, shallow little personal irritations and inconveniences against the truly big, truly real, critically important injustices the world faces each day.

It’s a waste of good psychic energy. Because in my heart, I know Meander is a good boat, a solid boat, one that will someday cross oceans.

But in my head right now, she’s just costing us money and getting us nowhere.

The Longest Day

Happy belated New Year, friends and readers. It’s been an unacceptably long while since my last post, and I do apologize for that.

That last post was on the unglamorous but important subject of engine mounts; and although it made its appearance in Bimini Dream on December 22, it had in fact been written before December 18 and scheduled for automatic publication thereafter.

There’s an irony to that.

The engine mount post included, among other things, a story about another boat that was badly disabled by something hitting its propeller, and it ended with an expression of gratitude for the many bullets that have whizzed harmlessly by Meander. But by the time it was published, Meander had already been hit by a new bullet. One in the form of a stray length of line in the Chesapeake Bay that struck our own propeller, wrapping itself around our shaft and damaging our gearbox.

We picked that line up at 8:15 AM on Friday, December 18, one hour after we tried to end our previous eighteen-day repair layover in Deltaville, Virginia by casting off from the “A” dock of the Deltaville Yachting Center, motoring north out of Broad Creek into the Rappahannock River, sailing east to the Chesapeake Bay, and allowing the forecasted twenty-knot north wind we would find there to push us south down the bay toward the ICW.

But in that moment, neither I nor my wife Pamela nor our dog Honey the Golden Retriever knew what it was that we picked up. But we knew the sudden thud under our feet and the ominous grinding that followed from the engine compartment. And then we knew three other things.

We had to get back to Deltaville. And with the motor’s condition an open question, we had to do it under sail. And that sailing had to be done with a twenty-knot north wind heading us off.

I have since tried at least three times to sit down and write up the rest of that day. But the composition of a coherent, competent, and complete account has confounded my courage, confidence and creativity every time. Because that day didn’t end for us until 12:15 AM on Saturday, December 19, when we again tied up on the “A” dock of the Deltaville Yachting Center.

In summary, we spent seventeen hours getting nowhere. Seventeen very, very tough hours.

But, on the bright side, at least our engine mounts held.

A trip too far

Having so often failed to write my way through the myriad grisly details and sodden textures of December 18, I should disclose right away that I have no intention of trying again to do so now. I will simply note that I aborted my first draft when I realized I was closing in on 1,500 words before having reached 9:00 AM in my narrative.

It’s obvious that I’m not quite in control of my material.

However, I will note that the trip we needed to make to return to the “A” dock required, probably, no more than ten miles made good. I say “probably” because after the line strike, I lost track of our position for more than two hours while I worked through everything I had not realized I didn’t know about reducing sail on our boat to cope with a twenty-knot wind.

But that ten miles over ground took us sixteen hours to travel. And at the end of the trip, the knotmeter that doubles as our “odometer” told us Meander had plowed her way, under our inexpert guidance, through almost forty miles of water.

So it’s equally obvious that I’m also not quite in control of my boat. Meander, indeed.

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Proving ground.

Inexperience, mostly

How do I drag out a trip like this over sixteen hours? Let me count the ways.

  • Inexperience with how Meander is rigged for the sail reducing maneuver known as reefing. Ninety minutes went into my pulling down the mainsail, getting the forward cringle of its third reefing point onto the mast’s reefing hook, and tensioning its outhaul line. Thirty seconds of observing the resulting misshapen mainsail reminded Pamela that the third reefing point wasn’t equipped with an outhaul line. Ten seconds of diagnostics revealed that I had, in fact, tensioned the sail with the second reefing point’s outhaul line. Forty-five minutes went into my forcing the sail back up to the second reefing point, a period during which I lost one waterproof winter boot out over the water. I won’t go into how that happened here other than to note that at the moment it came off my foot, I was out over the water as well.
  • Seasickness. That prolonged reefing exercise occurred while Meander, no longer being under motor, was no longer making way through the water. Sailboats that lose way are soon turned broadside to wind and wave. In our case, the wind was at twenty knots, and the waves it kicked up were a closely spaced six to eight feet high. Rolling in the troughs of those waves for two hours was more than we could take, and all three of us—Pamela, me, and Honey—gave up our breakfast shortly before lunchtime. Having established itself, that nausea would set the tone for the rest of the day, subsiding but never quite disappearing, making every bodily effort slow, tentative, and delicate.
  • Inexperience with sail balance. For all that my wife and I have accomplished in five years of learning to sail, we are yet rookies. And those years were spent exclusively on sloop-rigged boats that fly two sails, while Meander is a cutter that can fly three. Sailing under a 75% deployed headsail at the bow and a considerably shortened mainsail on the mast, I noted that we had lost some critical speed. So rather than struggle to get the main back up, I opted to hoist Meander’s staysail, located between the other two. I don’t believe there was anything in our experience to warn me that flying such a high proportion of Meander’s working sail area forward of her mast would cause her bow to be blown down. And I didn’t notice for the next four hours that our boat, typically capable of pointing forty degrees off the wind, was suddenly struggling to get up to sixty, retarding our progress north.
  • Inexperience with leeway. The wind that pulls a sailboat through water also, and inevitably, pushes her a bit off to her downwind, or lee, side. This idea isn’t new either to Pamela or to me, but we had had no direct experience of it in critical navigational settings where it mattered. So in my desire to sail the most direct line possible as we tacked back and forth toward Deltaville, I kept changing Meander’s course at the precise moment required to put critical turning marks ahead of us—a spit of land, a light marking a shoal or a channel—on a heading corresponding to a close-hauled point of sail. This is the one point of sail that would not let us point higher into the wind to compensate for the slowly accumulating and eventually quite substantial downwind error known as leeway, avoid the shoals onto which that error was setting us, and make it around our intended turning mark. I ended up having to take an extra tack away from three—not one, but three—of those marks before I worked out what was going on.
  • Accumulating exhaustion. By the time the sun was setting at 5:00 PM, we had put nearly nine hours of fatiguing and frustrated effort into our journey back to the “A” dock, and had managed only to reach the mouth of the Rappahannock. Our arrival there coincided with a forecasted backing of the wind from north to west, placing it to head off our progress up the river as it had previously done on the bay. Furthermore, as daylight dissolved into twilight, the air temperature began to drop. And once nightfall had fully added “cold” to our “sick” and “tired,” both our vision and our judgment began to dissolve as well.
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Not the Rappahannock. But a good example of deep shadow on water at twilight nonetheless.

  • Inexperience with sail balance. After twelve hours under sail, we had the west wind’s sixteen knots blowing nicely over our starboard side on the highly forgiving point of sail known as a beam reach, and our course was finally aligned with the narrow entry channel to Deltaville’s Broad Creek, at the south end of which lay the “A” dock, safety, and sleep. Then we started to worry about our speed into the channel. In that wind, it was nearly seven knots; and we wanted two. So we went immediately to the most drastic thing we could have done: we dropped our mainsail, intending to fly in on our headsail alone. And in a reprise of our earlier staysail experience, our bow was again blown down, and we lost our line. Shame on us. Unable once again to point up and recover our course, we had to furl the headsail and spend another hour fighting the wind to get the main up. By the time we were done, the wind had blown away all the progress we had made in the past three hours.
  • Sheer stupidity. Obsessed by now with the lifetime’s worth of advanced sailing lessons we had inflicted upon ourselves in the space of fourteen hours, I firmly resolved that our second approach to the Broad Creek channel would include room for a late correction. And in so doing, I completely lost sight of the much more fundamental task of navigation. Even at that late hour, the slightest glance at the chart would have driven home to me how straight and narrow the channel was, but I was too preoccupied to check it. So, coming in at far too steep an angle at 11:00 PM, we went soft aground on the shoal to the west. And after wriggling off, we shot far too fast across deeper water and ended up much more thoroughly aground between two channel markers on the shoal to the east.
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Not this aground. But aground enough.

Last-ditch efforts

With the west wind pinning us to the shoal, there would be no way to get off under sail.

More sobering still, our weather radio, the one that had so accurately predicted twenty-knot winds backing throughout the day from north to west, was now broadcasting a small craft advisory and calling for a blow of 30 to 40 knots after midnight. So there would be no waiting it out until morning, either.

So we did what we had been sorely pressing all day and all night to avoid. We dropped all our sails and once again fired up our suspect motor.

It took five minutes of spinning Meander’s helm back and forth while listening to her engine pound and grind under high throttle before she began to turn, first a few degrees to port, then a few degrees to starboard, then a few more to port. And it took another five minutes of pounding and grinding before her keel started inching forward through the mud, out from between the channel markers, back toward the deeper water.

We didn’t know what damage we were doing with this late, last-ditch motoring effort, nor could we have afforded to. And no amount of hindsight can reveal what portion of the five thousand dollars’ worth of drivetrain repairs Meander would eventually need was attributable to this moment as opposed to our initial early morning line strike.

We knew only that we wanted desperately to be off that shoal before midnight.

And get off we did. Our inches of progress soon grew into feet, and suddenly Meander was free again.

Gliding back into the Rappahannock, we began breathing out the tension of the last ten minutes and took a few moments to recollect ourselves. Then we took one last long look at our too long neglected chart, and aligned our boat for our third and final approach to Broad Creek.

And then we motored through the channel, passed into the waterway beyond, wandered inadvertently into the creek’s west branch, narrowly avoided plowing into a dock tucked into one of the deep shadows inhabiting the spaces between the sporadic lights of the creek’s many marinas, turned around, found the creek’s south branch, turned to starboard, found the Deltaville Yachting Center, turned to starboard, found the narrow entrance to the inside face of the “A” dock, turned to port, passed the end of the dock, turned to starboard, came alongside the dock, stepped onto the dock, and tied Meander off to the dock fifteen minutes after midnight on Saturday, December 19.

And, this time for the last time, killed her engine.

And then fell into bed, gratefully letting the distant howl of a rising gale on the river we had just left behind lull us to sleep on our well founded, well sheltered, gently rocking boat.

Aftermath

And that, in a rather oversized nutshell, was our Friday, December 18.

On Saturday morning, we told our story to Tony, the marina staffer on duty that weekend, and Tony let Lew, the marina owner, know we were back on the “A” dock. Lew stopped by later that day to hear our story in person and then arranged to have Mack, his master marine technician, pay us a visit the next day. On Sunday morning, Mack discovered in our gearbox oil the hundreds of bronze shards that would portend thousands more dollars in boat repairs. On Monday morning, the marina’s effort to locate and order a new gearbox for a twenty-five-year-old boat began in earnest.

But what with Christmas and the New Year and the ripple effects they would have on parts departments and service departments and shipping companies, we spent many of our next seventeen days simply waiting for things to happen.

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Not that we hate Christmas. Far from it.

Add to that the eighteen days from our previous stay, and you will see that I might be forgiven for going around telling my wife, the marina staff and anyone else who would sit still long enough to listen, “I’m going to die in Deltaville.”

Perspective, Michael. After all, dying in Deltaville would have been preferable to drowning in a gale just outside it.

And neither of these speculative fates seems to have befallen us anyway. Having cast off again from the “A” dock on January 7, Pamela, Honey the Golden Retriever and I now have Meander tied off in Hampton, VA, less than fifteen miles from the ICW’s Mile Marker Zero. It may well be that I’m going to die in Deltaville. But not yet.

Meanwhile, my recent reticence has been reckoned with, my writer’s block is broken, and our December 18 story is more or less out. I may revisit that day again; there are a few more stories left in it to tell.

But not until I finish catching my breath.

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IMAGES

Chart: Excerpt from NOAA Chart No. 12235, “Chesapeake Bay: Rappahannock River Entrance, Piankatank and Great Wicomico Rivers.”

Sunset: “Sunset on the Creek” by Rob, shared via photopin under a Creative Commons license.

Aground: “the mysterious chances : boat aground, santa barbara (“ by torbakhopper, shared via photopin under a Creative Commons license.

The “A” dock at Christmas: Mike Webster.